The Falling Sickness

I have been reading a novel that is set in the early 1800s and one comment caught my eye.  One character was saying that it was obvious another character was defective. The character’s  brother had the falling sickness and that was proof that the family had defective brains.  I knew the reference was to epilepsy and I started to wonder what my Victorian Medical book had to say on this matter.  It begins with a dramatic but fairly accurate description of what an epileptic episode might look like but didn’t mention how a person might lose control of their bladder or bowels.  It is not that Victorians had an aversion to discussing such functions (as you shall see in some of the remedies).

They list the causes and include hereditary (hence my book’s character taking one brother’s affliction as proof of the other brother’s faulty facilities.)  The medical book mentions malformations of the skull and brain as a cause.  That makes sense to me.

There was a list of conditions that could cause epilepsy.  One was intestinal worms.  I HAVE NEVER HEARD OF THAT!  Apparently, these beasts can invade the brain and do so, in developing countries!  Who knew!  Teething was also listed.  But, from the quick google search I did, it may have more to do with a baby getting an unusually high fever while teething that causes seizures.  I had to google the next cause because I had no idea what it was “the suppression or retention of catamenia”.  Basically, not having a period.  A google search says the menstrual cycle can affect epileptics and that makes sense to me too.  Poisons can cause seizures as can injury to the head and brain.  Well, of course they can.  So I learned something and I was thinking “they were bang on the mark with this one.”  Then I read that “masturbation, is also a fruitful cause of the disease.”  If I’m not mistaken, Victorians thought that it would cause all kinds of crazy things.  So they slipped off the mark I thought they were on.  If anything, I’ll concede that I can imagine that this particular activity may trigger an episode for someone WITH epilepsy but, it can’t CAUSE it!

The treatment for the falling sickness was to prevent the person from hurting themselves during an episode.  That is the procedure today.  There was no mention of the old wives tale of putting something in the mouth to protect the tongue.  I wonder when that idea came to be.  (FYI-don’t put anything into a seizing person’s mouth.  They can’t swallow their tongue but they can choke on or break their teeth on what ever is shoved in their mouth.)

Of course, a remedy depended on the cause.  If you were diddling with yourself-stop it!  If there is a fever, reduce the fever.  If you were born with it there wasn’t too much you could do.

The first recommended treatment is a good cleaning out of the bowels occasionally.  This came with a list of different substances and their amounts to achieve this goal.  I’m eye rolling here, but I’m not a doctor.  Perhaps being backed up doesn’t help a person with epilepsy.

The second thing the book recommends is the person be given an emetic at least once a week.  Basically, a herb that will make them throw up once a week.  Seems counter productive to me.

Third on the list is antispasmodic.  Makes sense.  Perhaps the list of possible herbs are the very thing being used now.  I don’t know.  Tonics are next.   That makes sense as well-keep the body strong.  Our modern version of tonics are vitamines and caffeine drinks.

The next remedy is Nitrate of Silver.  The book says that if taken for some time the skin with turn blue-black.  Well, that can’t be good!  And from what I can find on the internet, continuous doses in higher amounts is toxic!

Well if turning blue was not enough, the book recommends covering the face of a person having a seizure with a black silk handkerchief, tying it about the head and neck. (Can you imagine how you would feel waking up from a seizure with black fabric tied around your head and neck!) Gunn says this treatment is from France and is highly spoken of in some parts of that country.  “The patient, it is said, will recover from the attack almost immediately, or it will render it much lighter; and by continuing to do this for a while the disease may be entirely broken.”  It is exactly that kind of horrific practice I was hoping to find when I bought this book.  If I were an epileptic, I think I would prefer living now!

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